William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

There is honour in SA’s Bangui loss

The debacle involving elite South African forces in the Central African Republic, culminating in their hasty withdrawal this week, is a reminder that more often than not the military “solution” provides anything but resolution to a problem.

One does not have to delve back far to find that optimistically embarked upon campaigns often deliver endings that the warmongering politicians and generals did not expect. Think of the best militaries in the world, such as the United States, Britain and Russia, recently in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Even in engagements that have been officially designated as military triumphs, it is difficult to distinguish victor from vanquished when one factors in the future psychological, social, economic and political costs. Pyrrhic victories, almost every one. So let us not encourage any Pavlovian reflex automatically to cheer your country’s wars and battles.

President Jacob Zuma sees it differently, but given his shaky understanding of constitutional subtleties such as the right – nay, obligation – for civic involvement in the affairs of state, that’s not unexpected. At their memorial service, Zuma lambasted those who dared “dishonour the memory” of the South African soldiers killed in CAR by questioning whether South Africa in fact had a legal mandate to be there.

“The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country,” he grouched. Zuma is at least partly right, everyone does want to run the country. That is simply because he is so bad at it.

It is also true, though, that it is a bit late to start questioning the legal fine print to SA’s deployment of troops only when the body bags start coming home. Why did the critics, now so many and so vociferous, not raise their voices in August last year when Operation Vimbezela – a training programme launched in 2007 – was escalated due to a “deteriorating security situation”?

Only the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on defence, David Maynier, carped on about the implausible deployment of more “trainers” in the form of an elite combat regiment, in the middle of a civil war. The Third Estate just yawned, completely missing the plot, as too did most opposition parliamentarians and civil-society watchdogs.

It is not yet clear whether the CAR escalation was deliberately misleading and extra-parliamentary or just the Zuma administration’s habitual befuddlement, but the president’s position is not strengthened by contradictory government statements as to why it took place. The first version was that the additional deployment was part of “capacity building”; the later spin that they were there “to protect the trainers”. Expect soon to hear that the rebels had weapons of mass destruction that had to be neutralised.

There also has been an annoying whine to the public discourse about South Africa’s casualties, that 13 died and 27 were wounded “needlessly”.

If one accepts that warfare is generally futile, all soldiers can be said to die needlessly. But unless one is so naive as to want to disband all armies, one must accept that there is nothing needless about battle casualties. It is the potential price to be paid for being a soldier and it belittles their choice of serving as professional fighting men for pompous civilians to stand on the sidelines and weigh each casualty as to whether it was necessary or nugatory.

More should rather be said of the heroism displayed by 1 Parachute Battalion, however little traction the concept of patriotism has with fat-arsed commentators sitting at home, replete with could’ve-should’ve-would’ve post-match wisdom.

There is a compelling and authoritative account of the Bangui battle by Helmoet-Romer Heitman, correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, which appeared in the Sunday Independent. It is clear that the South African forces fought a disciplined, tactically sound engagement over many harrowing hours, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, and this despite being vastly outnumbered and running low on ammunition.

Contrary to the limply flapping wrists of many media pundits, those casualties were necessary for the bulk of the South African force to be able to regroup unscathed. These men did it for their comrades and their country, not for the lying, conniving politicians back home. So let us not confuse the issues.

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    • The Naked Worker

      After listening to President Zuma on the CAR, one can only turn to past US president George W Bush and to rest assured we are not the only country to elect funny Presidents:

      G W Bush quotes:

      1) “I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being president.” –as quoted in Bob Woodward’s Bush at War

      2) “This foreign policy stuff is a little frustrating.” –as quoted by the New York Daily News, April 23, 2002.

      3) “Oh, no, we’re not going to have any casualties.” –discussing the Iraq war with Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson in 2003, as quoted by Robertson.


    • Al

      “The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country,” he grouched. Zuma is at least partly right, everyone does want to run the country. Tha is simply because he is so bad at it.

      ROTFLMAO – so true. Excellent point!

    • Richard Young

      What a pathetic article.

      Full of ad hominem fallacies such as fat-arsed commentators, limp-wristed pundits, post match wisdom and pompous civilians.

      If anything this author suffers from all of those conditions.

      And as for relying on Helmoed-Romer Heitman for an authoritative account of the Bangui battle clearly demonstrates the naivety of this idiot.

      Another embedded military prostitute.

    • Momma Cyndi

      They chose to be soldiers so they deserved to die. They didn’t deserve to be told that the situation was deteriorating, they didn’t deserve to have sufficient equipment or be pulled out before the proverbial hit the fan? Your complete disregard for human life is surprising

      I have no doubt that our soldiers fought like heroes and I have no doubt that they died with honour. My doubt lies at the feet of the many lies surrounding all of this. From the hiding of important intel to the reason the 200 were deployed there to start with.

      Everyone wants to run the country because it is OUR country. Everyone wants to know why our soldiers were left hanging without backup, equipment, intel or an evac plan because they are OUR soldiers. Like our dear President, you don’t seem to understand the concept of democracy. Our ‘limply flapping wrists’ are attached to the same fingers which put a cross on a ballot paper to give our government the ability to do these things IN OUR NAME. Maybe it is time that our ‘limply flapping wrists’ were better respected?

    • The Holy Ghost

      @Richard Young

      I think you have commented on the wrong article. If not, read it again and provide some detail for your little rant.

    • Honkie Tonk

      @Richard Young

      WSM talks about the futility of war and that military solutions seldom work, but says in his last sentence “These men did it for their comrades and their country, not for the lying, conniving politicians back home. So let us not confuse the issues.”

      Me-thinks you have not read the article properly or it has gone over your head. You HAVE actually confused the issues. I believe you owe WSM an apology.

    • Charlotte

      @ WSM An extremely well expressed, fair-minded and deep thinking commentary that genuinely honours those who lost their lives in the CAR, rather than the usual ANC ‘expressing- their-condolences’ lip-service duplicity.
      It balances out the genuine bravery and heroism of the 1 Parachute Battallion with the unbelievable negligence, incompetence and disregard for human life as displayed by the Zuma-led ANC.
      One might even regard this outlandish ‘military exercise’ as culpable homicide.

      Regarding Zuma’s lambasting of S.African citizens for questioning whether S Africa had a legal mandate to be there and his asinine comment that we ‘back off’ because ‘everyone wants to run the country” – your summing up: “…everyone does want to run the country. That is simply because he is so bad at it” is correct.

      Maybe the less said about Zuma, the better:
      As with Malema, he is a waste of breath – and knows no better than to squander and extirpate our resources, time and money to feed and protect his insatiable greed (and megalomania) – and that of his cohorts.

      If, like Malema, he won’t go quietly, there is one way to get him out:
      Mindfully exercising our power of choice: Vote ABANC
      – Anything But ANC.

    • ConCision

      The Upshot
      Of Zuma’s Put-down
      As Part of his Cop-out.
      – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
      Rather than tell us to ‘back off and shut up’
      From the despicable ANC CAR debacle stuff-up
      (And for which it’s us who must, as usual, pay up)
      It’s time for him to back down, pack up and check out –
      Or be chucked out. This country has had more than enough.